A Matter of Perception

Interesting discussion (now shelved) on my post “literally name-calling” the other tribe over at PrayTell. It’s tempting to get into a he-said/she-said tit-for-tat. If the accusation is that my blog is provocative, I plead guilty. But I see nothing wrong or out of place about that. Those familiar with Latin will know that the roots of the word imply it is favorable to use one’s voice or calling. I’m in favor of people expressing their opinions. Very much so.

Like it or not, many Catholic groups have the rep for being angry. Where individuals are concerned, that may be well-deserved or blatantly unfair. It’s human life–it happens.

One personal example: I’ve played guitar for Catholic liturgy since my college days. I’ve also known the scorn of people who assumed I was a musical simpleton, a three-chord strummer, or that I had no background in classical music, or the like. It used to be annoying, but now it happens hardly at all. People make generalizations and assumptions, and they make errors, often based on their own limited personal experience. My sense of that experience was to keep my head down, play music as I’ve been asked, and most often, the detractors just hush themselves.

Jeffrey Tucker, to give one example, is one reform2 person I’ve come to know through the exchange of e-mails and some very invigorating chats online. I read his internet writings with an appreciation for the man behind the words. I don’t think of him as the mainstream of not-so-happy Catholicism.

Other reform2 people–not so much. Many still strike me as nurturing some chord of bitterness–how else would I explain their bile directed at all sorts of Catholic church musicians … of other styles and genres–people they don’t even know, and hardly bother to understand.

If we’re misdiagnosing applying labels as name-calling, I have no problem pleading guilty there, too. People identify themselves in groups, with labels, and as certain tribes, clans, and whatnot all the time. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as the people conversing understand the limits. So if PrayTell’s traditional-leaning commenters have a problem with specific things I’ve said or written–not some “literal” interpretation or offense-taken, let me know. Unlike other web sites, people who take exception to my commentary won’t be banned. Open discussion is welcome and available here. And I’m quite happy about that. You can keep it private, too. I do not adhere to the so-called Welborn protocol. Private correspondence is private.

If we’re also misdiagnosing analysis or commentary as name-calling, then what I do is hardly different from any other of the millions of internet commentators. I’m open to better ideas as to why otherwise cultured and fruitful church musicians would behave in such an openly uncharitable and unprofessional manner, to name one prominent example. I’m not going after your jobs, your musical livelihood, or tattling to your pastor or spouse or your bishop. I don’t work that way, not even as an exercise in Biblical justice.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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10 Responses to A Matter of Perception

  1. Randolph Nichols says:

    I confess to being one who has spent much of his liturgical music career in anger. Angry that so many Catholics in my area have not taken my skills seriously while several local Protestant parish communities have, angry that too many Catholics involved in liturgical ministry seem to shun intellectual curiosity and growth, angry that after so many years I have made so little headway transforming Catholic liturgical life into what I would like it to be.

    You will notice that this could be the complaint of someone from either the ideological left or right. The new communications technology now propels discussion at warp speed and thus obscures the reflection necessary perceiving and achieving common ground. In years past procuring an engaged ear seemed to take forever, now it’s instantaneous. Responses tend to be reflexive and without nuance or careful consideration. Self-editing plays an ever diminishing role and we easily slide into name calling.

    Yes, Todd, I have on several occasions censured the know-nothing guitar crowd. However, when I take the time to form a measured argument drawn from personal experience, I always make a concession. Many years ago I shared music responsibilities at a wedding with an accomplished conservatory-trained guitarist. His playing was so stunning that it left me asking why so few Catholic guitarists aspire to be at that level. Why don’t we demand it?

    • Todd says:

      Thanks for the comment. You ask why we don’t demand excellence? I wonder if, in part, it’s because many still see music and the arts as an add-on to liturgy. The focus, especially in the last ten years, is on the proper translation and uttering of the right words: the red-n-black, as it were. The music can be sublime or crappy, but as long as the priest says the right words, it counts the same.

      I also have found that many guitarists do aspire for self-improvement. And some, with time on their hands, actually achieve a good degree of it. A more biased sample than yours, Randolph, but mainly because some have been my students and those I’ve mentored. I see the flip side of the coin: home studio pianists who play the church organ with one foot on the “accelerator pedal.” Many of these dedicated people have played for liturgy for decades. But have never mastered pedal work or registrations.

      People have been critical of my approach in dealing with my personal anger the past day. I was a lot more of a hothead when I was younger. These days, the serenity prayer helps. Plus the occasional realization that we can and do make a difference in the small venues of life.

    • Liam says:


      Oh, for the liturgical harp. It’s a beautiful thing with which to chant the Psalms (I did it, once – I merely sang, of course); even hymns work if the space is the right size.

      My first and very long memory of liturgical music banality was of the parish “organists” on the Hammond organ using the chord keys and overuse of the swell and vibrato…it was a very long purgatory as a child. By comparison, the first folk groups were at the vanguard of excellence; within a few years, though, they sank back into the usual mire. My first 2 years of college, there were only mediocre folk groups, until an enterprising nun organized a schola that was my first taste of participating in a group the strove for the excellence I was accustomed to as horn player. Then, I arrived at St Paul’s when I went to law school, and it’s been a good benchmark ever since (not that there aren’t things I would consider changing…), though in the intervening years I’ve been in more, uh, eclectic ensembles, before returning full time to St Paul’s 5 years ago (I long was a very part-timer).

    • Todd says:

      It’s a nice thread; thanks for linking it. It illustrates the usual experience at workshops and in parishes: a friendly setting, a little rough on the fringes, but generally, people doing well to be welcoming and newcomers easily feeling a part of the action.

      Would that both our sites be more reflective of that sensibility. Some day, perhaps.

  2. jeffrey says:

    I gather this this post reflects a longer debate on Pray blog, but somehow i was out of pocket for that and never really caught the spirit of what was being discussed.

    In any case, I just wanted to thank you for the mention. there are conditions under which I too can be overcome with “bile” in the face of some wreckage I witnessed – mostly it happens when I see a parish used as an ego-feeding karaoke bar. It is sometimes difficult to remember that people who do this are completely clueless about the proper role of music in the ritual or the proper comportment necessary for musicians, to say nothing of the music demands. In those cases, I know that I should go speak with the musicians after but I can rarely form my thoughts well enough to do this.

    what do you think Todd? Should people confront musicians who wreck the Mass, however inadvertently they do this?

  3. Todd, thank you for taking the time to scan through the thread.
    What I really wanted to impart to you, though, was that this, to me, is the normal discourse among this “tribe.” It was not about the etiquette and niceties that attend agenda’d gatherings such as Colloquium or an NPM convention. I meant to, without commentary, illustrate the temperamental disposition of the “other tribe” as I have found it both at colloquia attended AND, more importantly, in our daily discourses online.
    We, you and I, are more alike than you might imagine. WE likely agree upon this reality: we need now, more than ever, to subsume our petty differences in order to coalesce via that which meets consensus, in order to survive, give unified witness to a hostile world, and not allow the transgressions of the Enemy, whether mischief or malevolence, to persuade us to jump off the cliff, name it Lord, or climb down from the cross.
    Can we be done with envy, self-righteousness and anger?

    • Todd says:

      I would agree that this sort of dialogue is ideal without being pollyanna. A few problems, but a general recognition on both sides that misbehavior is an aberration.

      That said, there are other examples on CMAA, and noel is often one of the first to jump in with a bite of snark. And the “Modernization thread” isn’t one of your site’s shining moments.

      In a bushel of apples, it’s nice for the occupants to comment on the variety of color (green, red, and gold) or shapes (round or bell), but they don’t need or want to deal with bananas or raspberries.

      After one of our online chats, Jeffrey invited me to their forum. I was skeptical, and after responding to the members’ snark, a number of posts accelerated into ill will. I have no problem accepting my one-tenth share of the blame on it. But let’s face it, the CMAA forum is at its best when the discussing group is as homogeneous as possible.

      True, the majority of members don’t make snark about rain sticks or vernacular-loving bishops. But those that do draw attention to themselves. And some of them indeed have a problem with anger.

      • Well, one has to be mindful that CMAA, more akin to the guilds of yesteryear than the Teamsters, AFL-CIO, NEIU’s of this era, has an ethos to which it adheres. So it wouldn’t be logical to look for the banana/raspberry stand in its marketplace.
        That said, there’s a lot of fruity stuff that is shared among its membership on/offline, and at events that is not received with snark. In the thread you mention I figured out that the inquiring poster seemed to want substance over style, so I gave her a list of tunes from OCP that I’m quite comfortable using at service. Her appreciation was nice, but what was noticeable to me was no snark or rancor was leveled my way for “advocating” a fruit basket that at the ethos level of the group is anathema.
        And we “aging hippies” should have already learned that anger is an absolute wasteland, desert as you say, and snark is not mischief, but a Venus fly trap.
        Thanks for the conversation.

  4. Jimmy Mac says:

    I think most parishes get what they pay for. A paltry music budget reflects a paltry attitude toward the value good music has on and for the liturgy. If the major reliance is on volunteer musicians, then what you sow, so shall you reap.

    Volunteers, no matter how willing, often times do not have the skills needed to take a parish’s music from pedestrian to professional. Don’t blame them; blame the cheapskates who aren’t willing to fund something better.

    A judicious funding of key musicians can make all the difference on the quality of music (guitarists as well as other types) and how the congregation reacts to what they are experience and to what they are being challenged.

    Catholics are very cheap when it comes to things like this. They would rather spend bucks on the tchotchkes a priest or some other influential person decides (s)he wants placed conspicuously so everyone will go “ooh and ahh” and lavish slavish amounts of praise on the donor or the decider.

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